The other day, a woman was killed in a horrific elevator accident in New York City.
Happily, this is a rare occurrence, though one that’s well-represented in Torts casebooks. Over at Point of Law, Ted Frank has blogged before about the dwindling number of accidents that involve elevators. In his post, Ted cites to a 1926 New York Times newspaper article, which I subsequently dug up, that relates 87 deaths connected to elevators and elevator shafts in 1925—just in the city of New York! Somewhat comfortingly, however, only 36 of these people were crushed by elevators. Forty-seven fell into elevator shafts (which is still somewhat traumatic to me, especially after I watched this scene as an impressionable youth), three were killed when elevators fell, and one “fell through a dumbwaiter” (eep).
I don’t know how many of these elevator-related accidents led to tort suits. A quick online search, however, suggests that these cases were once pretty common. These suits appear to have percolated in the 1870s and 1880s, and developed into a well-recognized type of case by the 1890s or the early 1900s, at the latest.
This development paralleled the construction of the first wave of high-rise structures in American cities (the first modern “skyscraper,” the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, was built in 1884). I don’t know if there’s a causal connection between the proliferation of high-rises and the development of the elevator-suit case type (after all, any multistory building could claim an elevator, and lots of early cases involved apartment buildings and department stores that clearly were not skyscrapers), but it bears mentioning that Illinois, home of many early skyscrapers, produced a large number of appellate decisions involving elevators during this time period; perhaps appellate courts with discretionary jurisdiction in that state decided that these cases were worth hearing, if only because the construction of more high-rise buildings would mean more elevators, and a greater need for appellate precedent to guide the cases that would result from accidents involving these devices.
I’ll go into a little more detail about the disappearance of tort subspecies like the falling-elevator cases, after the jump.